By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
VICTORIA – Hours after five people were arrested and removed from the B.C. Legislature, Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser was barbequed by Opposition members for allowing protesters into the building in the first place.
“He put all sorts of people at risk,” Mary Polak, House Leader for the Liberal Opposition, said of Fraser during question period last week. “I’m disturbed to glean, through his comments, that…. (the Minister) would do it again.”
The previous evening, Fraser, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, accepted a request to meet with leaders of the Indigenous youth protest group that had occupied the front steps of the legislature for the previous 10 days.
Adam Olsen, Green Party MLA for Saanich North and Islands also attended the meeting.
The protesters were supporting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ refusal to allow Coastal GasLink construction over their territories. The natural gas pipeline project has achieved regulatory permitting and approval from all 20 elected First
Nation chiefs along the proposed 670-km route from Dawson Creek to Kitimat.
Victoria demonstrators had set up a motley camp across the front parliament walkway and front steps including tarped tented areas, a teepee, fires, various messaged banners and red draperies. At night, protesters sat around fires in lawn chairs, and slept on mats with sleeping bags, their ranks undulating daily from handfuls to dozens of people.
In an effort to resolve the protest, Fraser listened to protesters’ concerns and sought to inform them about the federal/provincial talks with hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs that had occurred in Smithers the previous weekend. Representatives of the federal and provincial government reached an agreement with the hereditary Wet’suwet’en leadership, who have now taken the matter back to their communities for ratification. The agreement relates to rights and title, but does not cover pipeline issues.
“I met (protesters) in good faith,” said Fraser, who added their discussions had been productive. “There was no indication that there would be an occupation.”
After their meeting with the Minister Wednesday night, five of the protesters refused to leave. They remained in a legislative committee room for several hours, eating pizza and live-streaming their experience until they were arrested and removed.
Polak said protesters had already broken promises to end their occupation in five days and not light a fire on the legislative grounds. “I have a really difficult time understanding how someone with good judgment would believe that (the protesters) would keep their commitment to leave the room,” she said.
Before being allowed into the building, all of the protesters committed to leaving peacefully afterwards.
“They agreed in no uncertain terms to leave the building after the meeting took place,” said Alan Mullen, chief of staff to the Speaker. “As we know, the protesters reneged on that agreement.”
Ta’Kaiya Blaney, one of the Indigenous protest leaders, said during the sit-in: “We are staying here until Coastal GasLink is removed from Wet’suwet’en territories, or we are removed from this building.”
Fellow protester Kolin Sutherland-Wilson added later, “We have to stand strong. We can’t compromise.”
Blaney called on local viewers of the live-stream to converge on the legislature. Hundreds of people turned out.
Polak said the evening’s events put other people at risk because officers at the legislature were unable to respond to emergencies elsewhere in the city.
Fraser took responsibility for the decision to meet with protesters but held firm to strategy going forward.
“I remain committed to working with respect, with dialogue, with good faith and with trust,” Fraser said, citing the Wet’suwet’en word wiggus, which he said, means respect. “The way I operate as a minister – and I have learned this in working
with Indigenous peoples and First Nations – is that respect, trust and good faith is the approach towards reconciliation, the only approach that can possibly work.”
Talking on-camera to supporters outside the buildings, protester Saul Brown explained. “It’s a sad situation to be driven to this point, the point of arrest,” he said, seconds before their arrest. “The point of where we feel we haven’t been heard, and where negotiations haven’t been successful.”
Brown left his phone recording while the audio of their arrests continued to play, which included singing by several protesters as they were carried out.
All five were charged with mischief and conveyed to the Victoria police detachment.
“We’re the biggest fans of the democratic right to protest,” said Mullen. “What we’re not the biggest fans of, at all, is not respecting the rule of law.”
All the protesters were released shortly after with an order not to return to the property.
“These are hard situations,” said Fraser, reminding his elected colleagues of their unanimous approval of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “And we should not shy away from the fact that it is dialogue that will solve them.”
See the full exchange between Polak and Fraser during Question Period..